In the following STUDY published in September 2022, researchers set out to answer the question all lifters want to know: What is better for progressive overload to create muscular adaptation: Increasing the load used in an exercise overtime while maintaining the reps or increasing the reps executed overtime and maintaining the same weight. Often, the only idea presented on progressive overload is simply to increase the weight on a particular exercise over time.
However, this is far too simplistic and narrow of a conclusion and the researchers wanted to prove that muscle hypertrophy can occur through various modalities within a training program. To better understand the research, it’s important to look at the two groups studied:
LOAD GROUP – increased the weight used on the same exercises over an 8-week long program while keeping the repetitions the same.
REPS GROUP – increased the repetitions on the same exercised over an 8-week long program while keep the weight used the same.
And their controlled resistance program entailed:
Duration: 8 Weeks
Body Part Focus: Lower
Movements:Free-weight back squat, leg extension, straight-leg calf raise, seated calf raise.
All lower body training sessions were supervised by the research staff and were completed 2x / week on non-consecutive days.
After the research was conducted the researchers measured the muscle thickness of the quadriceps (the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris) and the calf muscle (the gastrocnemius and soleus) at 3 different sites – the lower portion, the mid-point, and the higher portion of the muscle. The measurements were all conducted with a B-mode ultrasound, and those performing the ultrasound testing were blind to which test group the participants were a part of. What did the researchers find? “Both groups gained appreciable muscle mass over the study period...similar increases were observed between conditions for a majority of muscle thickness measurements...” For example, they found the rectus femoris increased in measurements at the different sites by 9.8% in the REPS GROUP while increasing 8.6% in the LOAD GROUP, and the vastus lateralis increased in measurements 9.8% in the LOAD GROUP and 8.2% in the REPS GROUP. The two muscles studied of the quadriceps responded almost equally to both REPS and LOAD being manipulated. Based on this research, and anecdotal evidence of training clients both in person and online for 15+ years, I absolutely agree with the statement that muscle hypertrophy AND progressive overload can be achieved in a multitude of ways – changing reps and/or load being only two of them.
I will share the other ways further on in the article. Hypertrophy and/or muscle tissue maintenance should be the goal of any periodized training program, but how each coach & client approaches this goal can look different. I believe the research proved that there can be alternative routes to get to the destination. A well designed, custom training program; like what we provide at the Audacious Athletes coaching team always considers for each client a multitude of factors – the biggest one being how fast can we grow muscle tissue with the minimum effective dose. For example, how much can we stimulate the muscle fibers for hypertrophy while ensuring recovery of the muscle tissue stimulated is happening. We also always consider the following when designing a client’s training:
Nutrient intake phase
Accumulated adaptations – previous sport performance and musculature
There is also always an initial phase or assessment with new clients starting with Audacious Athletes. We can’t strive for hypertrophy right out of the gate because we must first begin tracking HOW the client is executing their sets through video review and RPE / RIR assessment by the client. We want to SEE how they execute some pertinent movements in their program and HOW IT FELT for them executing various sets at different load and rep ranges. Then we ensure nutrition is optimized for training progression – meaning we make certain calories are at a point where tissue can grow or recovery from the training stimulus AND we have taught the client how to eat prior to their workout and how to eat following their workout. Once those two things are in the works consistently then we can truly begin to progressively overload the client’s training and teach them that muscle hypertrophy can occur through a multitude of changes to their program – not just changing the LOAD and REPS - but we do change those very frequently to elicit a response to the tissue.
Do we believe at Audacious Athletes that increasing the loads (or reps) is important. Absolutely - #StrongerNotSmaller isn’t our motto without lifting heavier but we also, teach a client to understand that progression can be see when:
Lifting a similar load with far more control.
Lifting at various tempo’s with the same load & reps.
Executing the same movement with less rest between sets.
During exercise placement – executing the same reps and loads but now the movement is later in the workout..
Chasing hypertrophy can’t always be the goal either – again periodization is vital to the client’s recovery and longevity as a lifter. We must also train in different pathways for periods of time to optimize other systems as well. As coaches we can’t neglect power output and the client’s ability to elicit more fast twitch muscle fibers over time, or muscular endurance either.
Research has shown that there are multiple routes to the destination of muscle hypertrophy. When coaching actual humans outside of a controlled study; we believe we make the most impact to our client’s results through educating them on the various ways we can get to the destination. Teaching a client why we make the changes we do to their training program and continuous 2-way communication regarding their training program ensures we are on the best route for them and their lifestyle to accomplish the end physique goal.